The Europa League has provided some shocking upsets this season and there could be more to come.
Most of the focus on Thursday will be on Udine and North London, as Liverpool and Tottenham go into matchday six needing a result. Nineteen clubs have secured their place in the next round, with eight Champions League castoffs entering the mix. Only five spots remain, with nine clubs involved.
Here are the top five matches to watch.
Udinese vs. Liverpool
Instead of using this match as a learning experience for a youthful Liverpool side, Brendan Rodgers must travel to Italy and produce a victory. The Reds are in the driver’s seat and control their fate in this competition. They’re tied on seven points in second place, but hold the tiebreaker over Young Boys of Bern, despite the Swiss side earning a remarkable last-minute equalizer at Anfield two weeks ago. It was a hammer blow for Liverpool, missing the opportunity to clinch a spot in the next round.
Udinese have a small window of hope left open. Starting the day at the foot of Group A, the hosts must win by three clear goals and also receive some assistance for their slim chances to be realized. Should the unlikely result become a reality, it will be just another piece of disappointment that Rodgers will swallow, similar to the slice of humble pie that was served to them by Udinese by way of a surprising 3-2 comeback victory at Anfield.
The X-factor for the Reds as usual will be Luis Suarez, forced to serve an upcoming domestic one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation. A place in Rodger’s starting 11 is automatic considering the stakes, despite having only made one start in the group stage to date.
Young Boys vs. Anji Makhachkala
Martin Rueda is one win away from a significant achievement, given he gets some help in Italy from the group’s other fixture. Young Boys are on the brink of qualifying into the knockout stage, with the added benefit of a twelfth man in the stands, willing their side to victory against an opponent that has nothing more to play for.
Anji won their home leg of this fixture 2-0, but will use the match on Thursday more for leisure and an opportunity to rest their top players. The road to this point has been long and gruelling for Young Boys. Much like their opponents, having played their first match in this competition way back in July, the prospect of making it past the group stage was minimal at best for the hosts. A win might not be enough in the end, but getting themselves into this position on the final day is a tremendous accomplishment for this small club.
Bordeaux vs. Newcastle
Top spot is all that is left to be decided, as both clubs have booked their place in the next round. Newcastle must earn a victory at the Stade Chaban-Delmas to secure the title of group winners and the bonus prize of drawing a weaker opponent for their next fixture in the round of 32.
Newcastle collected all three points between these sides at St. James Park in early October, but the Geordies recently ended a dreadful month-long run of poor form, with zero wins from seven matches, struggling with injuries to key players, and sinking fast. Alan Pardew could use the morale boost of successive victories. Bordeaux sit a point clear, and can easily grind out a goalless draw, having yet to lose on home turf all season.
Sporting Lisbon vs. Videoton FC Fehervar
Should Videoton manage to earn the double over their Lisbon opponents on Thursday, not only will it be a humbling experience for Sporting, but the victory could see the Hungarian minnows steal the final qualification spot in the group, should Basel lose to Genk in Belgium.
Portuguese manager Paulo Sousa has overachieved and pulled off a near miracle in getting Videoton this far. Sousa learned his trade in the English Championship, first with Queens Park Rangers, and as predecessor to Brendan Rodgers at Swansea City, followed by as short spell with Leicester City, before moving to Videoton. A win at the Estadio Jose Alvalade is an achievable result, despite having lost both of their away matches in the group, as Sporting have proven to be an easy nut to crack this season.
Tottenham vs. Panathinaikos
Spurs were heavily favoured to win Group J, which makes their current situation quite surreal. Their performances have been below standard, paving the way for this winner-take-all match at White Hart Lane, though, a draw would see them through.
Should Panathinaikos manage to pull off the monumental upset, it would be their first away victory outside of Athens in the Europa League, making the notion of jaw-dropping final result far-fetched. Tottenham should easily earn the result needed, especially with Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe in top form, combining to score five of the team’s eight goals in their last three matches. However, Bale will be sidelined with an injury for this match.